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Conserving an Ethiopian painting

Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the life of Bishop Selama

The painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the life of Bishop Selama has been in the British Museum collection since the late nineteenth century. It is painted on cotton fabric and when it was acquired it was stretched on a frame in the Western style. During the 1960s, it was conserved, lined with nylon net and re-stretched.

By 2008 this treatment had failed and the cotton had deteriorated. It was discoloured and had tears and shedding fibres. The paint was also in poor condition with loss, wear and flaking. Conservators from the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum in London worked with scientists and curators to stop further decay.

The project discovered that the cotton was now so fine and fragile that it could no longer be stretched like a canvas painting. Instead a treatment was developed to support the cotton in a way not generally considered for paintings.

First, flaking paint was re-adhered to the cotton. Old lining and repairs were removed, millimetre by millimetre and the back of the painting was gently cleaned with dry sponges. Tears were flattened and repaired and a semi-transparent synthetic material was attached to the back. This lining extended beyond the edge of the painting and was used to hold it around a new support. Minor losses in the original cotton were painted in to reduce their impact on the image.

Scientific analysis undertaken in collaboration with MoLAB (an EU-ARTECH funded mobile laboratory) revealed that many of the colours had faded, which has changed the painting’s appearance. The background was originally painted with orpiment, an arsenic pigment, and would have been bright yellow.

The cotton had degraded (by a process called acid hydrolysis), resulting in weakness and discolouration of the fibres. Because of its advanced state of decay the painting remains more fragile than similar paintings or painted cloth many centuries older.